Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is a recent book by introvert and professional negotiator Susan Cain. The essential message is simple: Western (particularly American) culture prizes extroversion, but introverts make up one-third to one-half of the population, and their contributions are just as important.
Cain starts out by explaining some basic personality theory and exploring the roles of introverts and extroverts in society. During the past century, she states, the “mighty likeable fellow” has emerged as the American ideal, particularly in the business world. At the same time, collaborative group work and open office plans have become the status quo in many work environments, despite evidence that they may not actually improve productivity. Introverts in particular often work best in quiet solitude – although, as Cain emphasizes, introversion is not the same thing as unsociability. Introverts love socializing just as much as any human does, but we gravitate towards different situations. Often, we might avoid a crowd in favor of an evening with a few close friends.
In the next section, Cain explores the psychology and biology behind introversion. Some research indicates that introverts may be more sensitive to external stimuli, even as very young children. In one study, researcher Jerome Kagan exposed four-month-old babies to stimuli like loud noises, bright colors, and strong smells, and observed their reactions. He then tracked these children as they grew up. The children who reacted more strongly to the stimuli (exhibiting behaviors like crying or getting upset) tended to grow into quieter, more introverted teenagers. On the other hand, children who were unfazed by stimuli tended to develop extroverted personalities when they grew older. These findings suggest a “sensitivity” model to explain introversion/extroversion: introverts are easily overwhelmed by too many stimuli, but less likely to get bored or restless in a quiet environment. Thus, a highly sensitive, introverted person is uncomfortable at a loud party, but perfectly content to curl up with a book at home, while a highly extroverted person grows restless sitting alone at home, and craves the stimulation of a loud party.
This isn’t the only model of introversion/extroversion that Cain explores. Genes, among other factors, play a role in personality. Cain argues that culture and upbringing are particularly influential in introversion and extroversion, particularly on a societal scale. Many Asian cultures, for instance, place a comparatively higher value on quiet, introspection, and caution – that is, introverted traits. Cain contrasted this to the United States and other Western cultures, which she believes overemphasize the gregarious, enthusiastic extrovert ideal at the expense of recognizing the value of introverts.
Occasionally, Cain seems uncomfortably close to arguing that introverts are not only equal, but superior to extroverts. Introverts, we are told, tend to have greater powers of single-minded concentration, more sensitivity to detail, better impulse control, and more persistence. Borrowing a metaphor from science writer David Dobbs, Cain compares introverts to orchids. As Cain describes it, we introverts are delicate and “wilt easily,” but bloom with extraordinary beauty in the right conditions. Extroverts, on the other hand, are dandelions – hardier, but less exceptional. To be fair, Cain is explicit that introverts and extroverts are equally intelligent and have equal value, so perhaps her apparent favoring of introversion over extroversion is a reaction against a culture that tends to value the opposite.
Similarly, Cain recognizes that introverts come in all shapes and colors, but she spends an inordinate amount of time discussing a few select traits. For example, shyness is a stereotypical introvert trait, but nowhere near universal in reality; it comes up again and again in the book. Personally, I would have liked to learn more about the psychology and biology of introversion, although the speculation on its societal merits and disadvantages is also interesting.
The final section of the book steers from psychology toward self-help. Quiet is definitely aimed at an introverted audience, although there are some nods toward extroverted readers, particularly those who have close relationships with introverts. How, Cain probes, can an introvert thrive in an extrovert’s world? Do introverts have to deny their personalities to achieve success? How can we encourage introverted children in a society where extroversion is the ideal? One strategy is the use of “free traits” – adopting aspects of a different persona when one’s own personality traits are insufficient. For instance, Cain relates the story of an introverted professor who adopts an extroverted attitude in order to teach effectively. Incorporating extroverted “free traits” into one’s personality can be useful, but the effort is mentally exhausting. Nevertheless, Cain argues, it is sometimes worthwhile to act out of character for the sake of accomplishing a rewarding task.
I have mixed feelings about Quiet. I’m an introvert myself, but I was uncomfortable with the occasional implication that introversion is superior to extroversion. At the same time, I enjoyed the analysis of what introverted personalities can contribute in a society where people are expected to be outgoing. I like learning the science behind human behavior, and the psychology of introversion and personality theory is certainly interesting. Quiet has a few flaws, but I’m glad I read it. It got me thinking about the mistake of idealizing one default personality type when, in reality, it is our mixture of types and talents that helps us succeed.
Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012.
What are your experiences regarding introversion and extroversion in society? Do you agree that Western culture idealizes extroverted personality traits? Leave your thoughts in the comments!